Does Backpage.com Help or Hinder Sex Trafficking? Protesters Outside the Village Voice Disagree

Written by NYPress on . Posted in Breaking News, News Our Town Downtown, Our Town Downtown.


Norma Ramos addresses the crowd.

Village Voice shame on you, most of you have daughters too!”

Village Voice you have a choice, stop selling girls with no voice!”

Last Wednesday these chants echoed throughout Cooper Square, where protestors led by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) and Prostitute Research & Education (PRE) rallied outside the Village Voice’s office. The crowd – which consisted mostly of young women, but also a number of men, older citizens and a priest – marched in circles under pink umbrellas from 5 to 7 p.m. to deliver a stern message to the weekly newspaper publisher:

Backpage – shut it down!”

Backpage is a popular classified advertising website owned by The Village Voice‘s parent company, Village Voice Media, that includes the largest listing for adult entertainment services on the web. Though officially the site prohibits prostitution, the adult listings are explicitly sexual, offering escorts and in-house servicing of all varieties and fetishes. These listings are not illegal, but Wednesday’s protestors argued that the site’s proven links to sex trafficking – coercive, commercial sexual exploitation, often of minors – creates a greater human rights imperative that Village Voice Media shut the website down.

“There are now many documented cases of sex trafficking directly facilitated through Backpage.com,” said Norma Ramos, CATW’s executive director. These include 50 known incidents of child sexual services for sale on the site that were recorded last year. Ms. Ramos added that “Backpage is responsible for 70% of sex trafficking ads.”

In addition to Ms. Ramos, speakers at the protest included Stella Marr, a sex trafficking survivor who has organized a network called Survivors Connect, City Council member Brad Lander and Aaron Cohen, activist and author of Slave Hunter: One Man’s Global Quest to Free Victims of Human Trafficking.

“We cannot turn our backs to the suffering caused by these Backpage ads,” said Ms. Marr.

Another survivor agreed. “Don’t open a candy shop for predators to go shopping for our kids,” she yelled at the Village Voice’s windows.

Council member Lander noted that both Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hines and the City of New York unanimously called on Village Voice Media to shut down sex trafficking ads. “Village Voice says they know better than a 13-year-old girl [who is forced into sex trafficking],” he said. “They know something better: how to profit from human suffering and slavery.”

According to Mr. Cohen, 89% of female prostitutes worldwide would choose to leave the sex industry if they had the chance. He emphasized that the vast majority of women in the industry are forced into prostitution by adverse social conditions like poverty, lack of work opportunities, unaffordable housing and discrimination.

CATW and Backpage’s opponents believe that Village Voice Media only leaves the site open for profit. Liz McDougall, the alt weekly’s general counsel attorney, however, argues  that Backpage in fact helps the fight against sex trafficking. She contends that Backpage is able to monitor illegal trafficking activity and report it to law enforcement. Shutting the site down, she says, would only drive the sex industry further underground and out of reach. As reported by CNN, a team around 100 employees oversees each adult listings entry before it is posted, and identifies about 400 ads each month that potentially offer underage sexual services.

Ms. McDougall is not alone in her defense. Right next to Wednesday’s protestors was a smaller group protesting the protest. The Sex Workers Outreach Project – New York City (SWOP-NYC) and Sex Workers Action New York (SWANK) wore “I <3 Sex Workers” pins and handed out their own brochures to passers by. They argued against what they considered to be CATW’s well-intentioned but misguided approach to change.

According to Lindsey Hennawi, a co-organizer of the rally, “We need to incorporate sex workers’ voices and experiences into the political discourse in order to better understand the issues which lead to exploitation in the sex trade. Ignoring those who are most impacted by these policies leads to incomplete and flawed understandings of social justice issues, which in turn creates ineffective solutions, like what we see here with the attempt to shut down Backpage.”

Kate D’Adamo, SWOP’s community organizer, emphasized that Backpage’s low-cost advertising can increase work safety and mean the difference between economic opportunity and poverty for people in the sex industry. Especially for the black and transgender populations disproportionately represented in sex trafficking, she argued, regulation of the industry, not its closure, is important for ensuring that sex workers can work safely

SWOP issued a letter to city council on June 20 that stated, “We feel that the crusade against Backpage.com is misguided and disregards human rights-based approaches and best practices to fighting exploitation and coercion.” The letter included two suggestions to the city for more effective resistance to sex trafficking: 1) fund emergency shelter resources for homeless and housing unstable youth to keep those in danger of trafficking away from traffickers, and 2) de-prioritize prostitution and prostitution-related arrests to encourage trafficked women to come forward to report abuses.

“You want a hard fight?,” one SWOP volunteer asked. “Empower sex workers. Who’s better for rooting our illegal sex trafficking than sex workers themselves? Give them the power to police their own industry.”

In CATW and its supporters’ view, however, prostitution is not something to be legitimized — and only rarely is it a choice. One of the pamphlets they distributed states that “prostitution is not ‘work.’ It is a violence against women and girls and a human rights violation. The term ‘sex work’ completely masks the physical, psychological and sexual violence inflicted on prostituted persons.”

“This isn’t theory, this isn’t moralism, this is human rights and real experiences across the world. We’re talking here about the system that enables oppression,” said Clare Nolan of Sisters of the Good Shepherd, partners of CATW.

Jonathan Walton of InterVarsity’s New York City Urban Project agreed in the conclusion to a poem he read to the vocal crowd. “This isn’t an event,” he said of CATW’s protest. “It’s a lifestyle.”

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